Category Archives: American Studies

A Roti by Any Other Name Would Taste Like Home: Food Culture in the Punjabi-Mexican Communities of the Early 20th Century United States

By Haritha Govind

The South Asian diaspora has made its way throughout many parts of the world –bringing along cuisines, opening restaurants, and familiarizing the world with dishes like naan and lassi. These are immigrant stories that have a strong continuity even today. But what about Indian immigrant stories that were a snapshot in time, creating a unique culinary culture in a community that, unfortunately, did not sustain the same continuity? This post introduces the fleeting Punjabi-Mexican community of the early 20th century in California. It explores how a unique set of socio-political circumstances created an environment for two cultures that unknowingly shared similar food to forge a distinct culinary history.

How did these two communities meet in California? In the mid-19th century, farming families in the Punjab region of India started sending their sons abroad, including to the United States, to help supplement their family incomes. These men were accustomed to physical labor, and many found themselves being hired at mines and farms throughout California and other southwestern states. Meanwhile, many Mexican women from migrant laborer families found themselves working on Californian farms after being displaced by the Mexican Revolution. With the Immigration Act of 1917, Indians and other Asians were restricted from entering the United States, and those who were already in the country could not leave easily. This created a unique situation where Punjabi men found it comforting and legally advantageous to build family units by marrying Mexican women. Interracial marriages were illegal in California at the time, but both communities could circumvent this issue by identifying as “Brown.”

A Punjabi-Mexican American couple, Valentina Alarez and Rullia Singh, posing for their wedding photo in 1917.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One might assume that, in these Punjabi-Mexican households, the dinner table was awash in fusion food. Afterall, there are many similarities between Punjabi and Mexican cuisine: the use of spices such as cumin and red chili, the practice of eating flatbread or rice with a broiled stew or curry, and the importance of flavor boosters like onion, garlic, lime, and cilantro. Punjabi men found the corn tortilla to be unfamiliar to their palate, but its resemblance to the roti, an Indian whole-wheat flatbread, was not lost on them. Although children in these families had a mixed cultural identity, and their names, such as Kishen Singh, often reflected their unique cultural disposition, food in the home did not see the same hybrid transformation. Mexican wives learned to expertly prepare Punjabi dishes and would feature them at the dinner table, but Mexican foods were never Indianized, or vice versa. The two culinary traditions remained separate and intact in their serving bowls: a dish of butter chicken could sit next to a plate of tamales at the dinner table, for example, but one would be hard-pressed to find a butter chicken tamale.

Cumin seeds
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In this sense, the Punjabi-Mexican community disrupts the conventional expectation that diasporas naturally create hybridized or creolized cuisine in the home. Why might this be? Within these multiethnic families, the language spoken at home was usually a mix of Spanish and English, as the mothers would teach their children their native language. Punjabi fathers, by contrast, shared their culture, history, and religion but were more intent on their children easily integrating into Californian society, thus sparing them from the racial and cultural discrimination that came with being mixed race. It is in this childrearing phenomenon that the lack of culinary fusion begins to make socio-cultural sense: the mother’s influence on food and culture was dominant in the family. This line of argument is intertwined not only with the role of women in the early 20th century but also with the role of women of color: would creolization have occurred if both men and women immigrated from Punjab to California, or would this hybridized community never have emerged?

Hypothetical questions aside, there was one setting outside the home where fusion cuisine was indeed featured for a short period of time: Punjabi-Mexican-owned restaurants. The Rasul family’s restaurant “El Ranchero” opened in 1954 in Yuba City, frequently advertised in the Appeal Democrat newspaper for its roti quesadilla. This was the main fusion dish on the menu: it had melted cheese, onions, and shredded beef inside a paratha (whole wheat flatbread), and it came served with a chicken curry dipping sauce, as well as salad or rice and beans. The restaurant successfully served the Punjabi-Mexican community for four decades, providing a place where Punjabi men and their families could share a taste of home with each other. This suggests that fusion was more prominent as a business venture than as an element of everyday lifestyle.

More recently, Punjabi-Mexican fusion cuisine has become a popular phenomenon in modern food truck culture and among food content creators. Its impetus, however, does not come directly from the Punjabi-Mexican community that existed in the early 20th century but rather from increasing connectivity through travel and social media. The roti taco or quesadilla, which some Indian children are familiar with eating, is one such example of a culinary coincidence across time rather than a direct nod to the Rasul Family and their restaurant menu at El Ranchero. Despite this historical tension between hybridization and preservation, modern culinary fusion has fostered a new interest in exploring multiethnic cuisines of the past to investigate how food and community interacted.

Critically Making Games from Historical Cookbooks

By Alessandra Zinicola Lopez

To make something edible is arguably the anticipated end-expectation of the design and use of any food recipe. Making is entwined with cookery, from the writing of its instruction, guided by the experimentation involved in developing a recipe, through the tactile creation process of the consumable result.

As scholars, we can approach the study of recipes from different perspectives. My educational background is in technical communication, but my doctoral work has been done through the University of Central Florida’s innovative digital humanities program, Texts and Technology.

Within this program I typically focus on historical domestic technical communication, the old receipts that instructed Americans for centuries on how to run households. But rather than solely approaching my research from methods historians or technical communicators might default to, I approach my work like a digital humanist, and have found critical making to be useful in exploring my studies.

In this article I aim to introduce the critical making research method to recipes research by showcasing a digital exercise I have completed using it. Through this, I hope to encourage other recipe scholars to experiment with this method.

In Ratto’s 2011 publication of Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life, the author writes about critical making merging concepts of critical thinking and pragmatic physical making together to create a process-focused way of deriving knowledge.

Ratto explains the method includes three stages: a literature review, prototyping, and reconfiguration, discussion, and reflection. The method is performed to bridge gaps between technology and society.

The critical making process can be interactive or collaborative and various digital tools can be used to perform it. In this exercise I used Twine, an open-source hypertext platform that allows for the formation of scholarship through online interactive non-linear narratives. I would describe it as a tool to create a digital choose-your-own-adventure.

Image Credit: Internet Archive,

I worked with Twine to explore a historical cookbook that interested me because of its creative use of poetry to instruct meal preparation. The book is Maria J. Moss’ A Poetical Cook-Book, a community cookbook originally published in 1864 during the American Civil War. An aim of the project was to generate public and scholarly interest in historical recipes through gamification. I thought that perhaps a younger, technologically savvy audience might have their interest in American culinary history piqued through a digitally interactive experience. I used the critical making research process to create a hypertext narrative game based on the cookbook.

The following is an abbreviated example of the show-your-work type of documentation done during the prototyping stage of critical making.

To begin, I consulted Twine’s discussion boards and searched for tutorial videos on using the platform. I wanted to create all the passages and arrange them in the way I felt would make sense to a user. While it was easy to select and place each recipe, it was harder to figure out how to lead up to them, transition between them, and end the journey.

In the next passages, I offered information about the project, and I allowed the recipes to be accessed in the order of what people typically consume during mealtimes, and additionally in any other way they want to access them (i.e., dessert for dinner). After I added all the recipes, I played with how they could link together. It was then that I realized the way to click through them could be a conversation between the user or attendee and the host.

Image Credit: Twine,

I eventually ordered the passages and links together as pictured above. I then started to fiddle with color. I used a tutorial to guide me through the tips on how to change the font within the stylesheet. While I was initially successful in finding fonts and colors for the game, I ran into some issues.

I tried to figure out why my colors displayed incorrectly. I had copied and pasted code from a forum discussion response that claimed to be a coding answer. Revisiting it, I realized there was code missing. Once I added it, the issue was solved. This type of refashioning constituted a reconfiguration portion of the project.

Image Credit: Twine,

I felt the exercise in gamifying a historical cookbook was successful and well received. Through the process of critical making, I found that it has provided a path to be more creative as a scholar by exemplifying the traditional ways of generating knowledge are not the only ways. Research can be designed in ways that allow for it to be presented in ways that may speak to more people, expanding its reach and impact. Turning historical rhyming recipes into a digital narrative game is just one way to garner more interest from scholars and the public in recipes, history, and literature.

Special thanks to Dr. Anastasia Salter for all the knowledge imparted within their course on Critical Making for Humanist Scholarship.

The published version of the game can be played at

Oppenheimer and the RP

By Joshua Schlachet

It may not surprise you to hear that The Recipes Project is light on nuclear arms. Given the exploratory style and generative levity with which so many of our contributors approach our shared themes of food, magic, art, and medicine, the weightiness of weapons of mass destruction, the inner pathos of their “father,” and recipes for radioactive isotopes are nowhere to be found. (Gravity, after all, was a topic for a different Christopher Nolan film.)

Yet the spirit of experimentation, the enormity of collective endeavor, and the destructive consequences of creation without humanity can all be found throughout our pages past. And a profound trust in the process, in taking a leap of faith that the farfetched—even the impossible—could be achieved with sufficient inquisitiveness and dedication to the procedure, runs through so much of what we do at the RP. What is a recipe if not a leap of faith? To begin with raw, even primordial ingredients and trust in a method to transform them into something perhaps unimaginable (whether a delicious pie or a fission reaction) cuts to the heart of what a recipe is and does.

These too are personified in the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which undoubtedly contributed to famed director Christopher Nolan’s choice of Oppehheimer as his first ever foray into the biopic genre. As the principal figure in the Manhattan Project and in the construction of the first atomic bomb, what began as a career of scientific exploration evolved into an existence plagued by the destructive power that his endeavors unlocked. Oppenheimer’s life of contradictions would be forever tied to the terrible weapon he and his team developed and to the wartime state that produced and used it.

Throughout the pages of the RP, our contributors have probed the relationship between war and recipes in a variety of contexts. In some posts, recipes had the potential to win wars, whether by provisioning the troops, encouraging thrift on the homefront, or buying domestic goods. Here are but a few to sample:

Other contributors have taken a creative approach to the study of recipes and weapons, both top secret and otherwise. We need not dig too far back into the archive to find Madison Clyburn’s piece It Roars and Breathes Fire on the making of ‘terrifying’ dragons for waging war and for spectacle. Aileen Das’ Removing Arrowheads in Antiquity and the Middle Ages explores recipes as a means to heal the wounds of war in the ancient world. For a far more lighthearted (though still very much political) take on ‘secret’ weapons of a very different sort, check out Jennifer Sherman Roberts’ The CIA’s “Secret” Weapon: Dorothy Pompeo’s Christmas Fudge Recipe.

Yet to historians of Japan like me, the atomic bomb means something quite different. As I watched Oppenheimer in the theater, I couldn’t help but think of who got left out—of the silenced voices of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is clear that the film agrees with Gary Oldman, playing President Harry Truman, when he tells Oppenheimer that “Hiroshima isn’t about you.” Whether or not we agree with this sentiment, it is worth remembering that some of our contributors have used the lens of recipes and food to center Japanese voices and experiences. Here are two highlights from Nathan Hopson’s series on food culture in wartime Japan:

Finally, as an auteur filmmaker, Nolan is a master of time. To bend and, at times, even overcome it, is a hallmark of his filmic style. While Oppenheimer’s narrative jumped from era to era, traversing decades in seconds, Tillmann Taape’s 2017 RP post ‘Thus It Prevails Against Time’ reminds us that recipes have sought to cheat time (and decay) since at least the sixteenth century. How and why did an early modern maker of medicines prevail over time without the modern tools of nonlinear storytelling or IMAX cameras? Take the time to read and see.

Trusting the Grocer

By Benjamin R. Cohen

A word for the grocer, because before the recipe is the ingredient. To get the ingredient, you either grow it yourself or buy it at a store. Most of us buy it at a store. The grocer is the supplier.

At the supermarket, today’s worries over a reliable supply chain are often about availability and consistency. We are but consumers relying on others—producers—to meet our consumer needs. We expect producers to stock those shelves, whoever they are. It’s when the shelves are bare that we start to wonder, where does it all come from anyway? We think more about those bumper stickers asking us to know our farmer to know our food. But this is the exception, because the shelves are often fairly stocked. People benefit from and are beholden to a grocery infrastructure a century in the making.[1]

That infrastructure didn’t exist in the west in the nineteenth century. The worries over supplies then were not so much about consistency. Western customers had less expectation about what would always be on the shelves, what would always be in stock. They were more about worried over whether those supplies were what the grocer said they were.

It was the era of adulteration. Before the homemaker or housekeeper could buy supplies to cook the meals, she (often a she) had to trust that the grocer was selling her the real deal (I wrote a whole book about this, Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food, 2019/2022).

The era of adulteration was a period in western history when customers fretted over the honesty of their food’s identity. Adulterated meant contaminated, corrupted, or otherwise misrepresented food. Was that sugar cut with sand, was that milk watered down, was that butter really butter or some factory upstart called margarine — things like that. One way to get a sense of the prominence of the worries is that the reigning economic paradigm at the time was caveat emptor—buyer beware. Most North Americans had not yet established a regulatory infrastructure based on the premise that your food shouldn’t make you sick.

Distrusting the grocer, from “The Use of Adulteration,” Punch (August 4, 1855). Image in the Public Domain.

Granted, adulteration has always been with us, from biblical times to today: we always worry if our food is what the seller tells us it is. But the so-named ‘era of adulteration’ came about in large part because of a relatively quick transition in western supply chains across the second half of the nineteenth century. It came about because customs—the root word inside customer—were disrupted. The age-old ways people had come to trust food from the market were thrown into disarray.

Grocers in the west stood at the balance between customer and supplier, managing a store counter that had quite a lot of power. That might seem odd, since our grocery stores today don’t seem to have actual grocers. But that’s because most of us are comfortable with our self-service grocery stores, so much so that the term “self-service” rarely factors into the description. Before innovations at the Piggly Wiggly and A&P early in the twentieth century, grocery stores were grocers’ markets, and goods were delivered across a counter by the grocer himself.[2] The storekeeper stocked wares behind him and out of reach of the rabble so that groceries came to customers like prescription drugs from a drugstore counter. “Know your grocer know your food” may have been a carriage bumper sticker, for all I know.

The grocer at work, from the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Co., c. 1870–1900. Chromolithographed trade card. Printed by R. Ganton, Litho, London. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

The word itself, grocer, descended from storekeepers in the Middle Ages who sold products in gross. For centuries, they were known as Spicers or Pepperers before their dealings in gross weights brought them the name Grosser (in the nineteenth century, French grocers were still called épicers, or spicers) The English spelling evolved by the time grocers were part of a food system that included not just the general or dry goods stores of rural livelihood, but public markets, butcheries, bakeries, and other specialty shops of the urban streets. The public market was, as the name would suggest, a public space. Grocers’ markets more often operated as private shops subject to their own self-decided operations. As rancor grew over customers’ fear they were being swindled, grocers professionalized to develop standards of practice and décor. They published manuals. They printed trade papers. They held conferences. One of their biggest challenges was to garner the faith of their customers. One reason their customers didn’t trust them was that oft-leveled accusation of adulteration.

By the first decades of the twentieth century, whatever success they had in those efforts was eclipsed anyway with the new self-service markets. A century later, we take it for granted so much that our worries are whether the supply truck will deliver the goods from across the country or across the ocean every single day or not. Today’s equivalent worries over food identity may concern the source, the process, and the supplier, but, in a hyper-consumer capitalist culture, until there’s a global pandemic or a boat stuck in a canal, they are less about availability.

I admit I think of this history every time I go to the supermarket; every time I go to the farmer’s market; every time I remember Mr. Hooper or the grocer down the block from my childhood, Mr. Gordon, a last vestige, even then, of the neighborhood grocer. It isn’t nostalgia to appreciate the grocer — it’s historical indebtedness. A word for the grocer is a word of appreciation for an often-invisible agent in the middle of supply and demand.


[1] Given the problems of supermarket redlining (and the related food apartheid) and prevalence of food insecurity, I’m nodding here to an idealized gentrified western model, to be sure, and one that isn’t ideal in the same way to everyone.

[2] Susan Spellman’s (2016) Cornering the Market is a good source for more grocer history. Shane Hamilton’s (2018) Supermarket USA gives it a good scope of international relations.